George (A Good American, 2012, etc.) can’t separate his good ideas from his bad ones, but there’s still a lot to enjoy here.


Two boys in 1970s Maine help each other weather tragedy.

Robert Carter’s friendship with the new kid in town, Nathan Tilly, gets off to a strong start in the middle school boys’ room, where Nathan rescues him from a bully who has been beating the crap out of him year after year. Things head south the next day though, when Nathan’s ebullient, kite-flying dad, who has promised to take them out for ice cream, falls off the roof of their house to his death, also crushing a mongoose named Philippe Petit (after the World Trade Center tightrope walker). This precipitous turn of events makes you wonder what to expect from the author—bold narrative moves or gratuitous tragedy? The answer is both. The highlight of the book is Fun-A-Lot, an amusement park owned by the Carter family. “The court of Camelot had been re-created on the coast of Southern Maine—Olde England in New England, as the legend above the gates put it. Teenage knights clanked about in ill-fitting plastic armor and damsels swept up and down the pathways in bodices garlanded with ribbons.” (Shades of George Saunders’ “My Chivalric Fiasco,” though without the drugs.) As much as Robert’s father hates his amusement park, it’s dwarfed by the main source of misery in his life: Robert’s older brother, Liam, who is gradually being debilitated by Duchenne muscular dystrophy. Liam’s inexorable death, accompanied by a blistering soundtrack of the punk music he loves, devastates his family. But it does not slake the author’s thirst for mayhem, as the final chapters of the book zip us back to World War II for mass murder of innocent civilians, kill off another main character, and throw in a little frustrated pedophilia.

George (A Good American, 2012, etc.) can’t separate his good ideas from his bad ones, but there’s still a lot to enjoy here.

Pub Date: Feb. 21, 2017

ISBN: 978-0-399-16210-7

Page Count: 336

Publisher: Putnam

Review Posted Online: Nov. 7, 2016

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Nov. 15, 2016

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Tinny perhaps, but still a minutely rendered and impressively steady feminist vision of apocalypse.


The time is the not-so-distant future, when the US's spiraling social freedoms have finally called down a reaction, an Iranian-style repressive "monotheocracy" calling itself the Republic of Gilead—a Bible-thumping, racist, capital-punishing, and misogynistic rule that would do away with pleasure altogether were it not for one thing: that the Gileadan women, pure and true (as opposed to all the nonbelieving women, those who've ever been adulterous or married more than once), are found rarely fertile.

Thus are drafted a whole class of "handmaids," whose function is to bear the children of the elite, to be fecund or else (else being certain death, sent out to be toxic-waste removers on outlying islands). The narrative frame for Atwood's dystopian vision is the hopeless private testimony of one of these surrogate mothers, Offred ("of" plus the name of her male protector). Lying cradled by the body of the barren wife, being meanwhile serviced by the husband, Offred's "ceremony" must be successful—if she does not want to join the ranks of the other disappeared (which include her mother, her husband—dead—and small daughter, all taken away during the years of revolt). One Of her only human conduits is a gradually developing affair with her master's chauffeur—something that's balanced more than offset, though, by the master's hypocritically un-Puritan use of her as a kind of B-girl at private parties held by the ruling men in a spirit of nostalgia and lust. This latter relationship, edging into real need (the master's), is very effectively done; it highlights the handmaid's (read Everywoman's) eternal exploitation, profane or sacred ("We are two-legged wombs, that's all: sacred vessels, ambulatory chalices"). Atwood, to her credit, creates a chillingly specific, imaginable night-mare. The book is short on characterization—this is Atwood, never a warm writer, at her steeliest—and long on cynicism—it's got none of the human credibility of a work such as Walker Percy's Love In The Ruins. But the scariness is visceral, a world that's like a dangerous and even fatal grid, an electrified fence.

Tinny perhaps, but still a minutely rendered and impressively steady feminist vision of apocalypse.

Pub Date: Feb. 17, 1985

ISBN: 038549081X

Page Count: -

Publisher: Houghton Mifflin

Review Posted Online: Sept. 16, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 15, 1985

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A modern day fable, with modern implications in a deceiving simplicity, by the author of Dickens. Dali and Others (Reynal & Hitchcock, p. 138), whose critical brilliance is well adapted to this type of satire. This tells of the revolt on a farm, against humans, when the pigs take over the intellectual superiority, training the horses, cows, sheep, etc., into acknowledging their greatness. The first hints come with the reading out of a pig who instigated the building of a windmill, so that the electric power would be theirs, the idea taken over by Napoleon who becomes topman with no maybes about it. Napoleon trains the young puppies to be his guards, dickers with humans, gradually instigates a reign of terror, and breaks the final commandment against any animal walking on two legs. The old faithful followers find themselves no better off for food and work than they were when man ruled them, learn their final disgrace when they see Napoleon and Squealer carousing with their enemies... A basic statement of the evils of dictatorship in that it not only corrupts the leaders, but deadens the intelligence and awareness of those led so that tyranny is inevitable. Mr. Orwell's animals exist in their own right, with a narrative as individual as it is apt in political parody.

Pub Date: Aug. 26, 1946

ISBN: 0452277507

Page Count: 114

Publisher: Harcourt, Brace

Review Posted Online: Nov. 2, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 1, 1946

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